By: KEITH ROBINSON
Indiana’s largest newspaper is leading a statewide media campaign aimed at tightening rules governing how much lobbyists can spend on gifts for lawmakers and to make the giving more visible to the public.
The Indianapolis Star this week began a series of editorials examining what it contends is inadequate state law regulating the relationship between legislators and lobbyists, who represent clients such as utilities and insurance companies that have a direct interest in how laws affecting them are written.
The Star enlisted 22 other daily newspapers across the state to encourage the public to demand changes in the law. It is sharing its editorials and columns with the other newspapers, which also will report on their local lawmakers and their ties to lobbyists.
“We don’t deny that lobbyists and their clients have a right to be heard,” said Tim Swarens, the Star’s opinion editor, who is leading the “Access to Power” project. “What we object to is legislators ? our elected leaders ? receiving expensive gifts from special interests.”
The campaign will continue through next year’s legislative session, when lawmakers are to take up the issue. The session begins in early January and ends in March.
“By educating voters, I feel that we can provide a valuable service,” said Star Editor Dennis Ryerson. “We’re going to keep it up.”
Indiana law does not restrict the value of gifts legislators can accept from lobbyists, but they must report gifts worth at least $100. Gifts have included meals, out-of-state golf trips and tickets to major college sporting events and Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers games.
The Star believes regulations could be improved by prohibiting lawmakers from accepting gifts worth more than $50 from lobbyists or any gift from someone doing business with the state. It wants lobbyists to disclose the value of “all goods and services” offered to lawmakers regardless of value.
The Star also wants state law to bar legislators from accepting any gift worth more than $50 from public universities and colleges, which are not required to file lobbying reports, and force lawmakers to wait at least one year after they leave office before they can work as a registered lobbyist.
Lobbyists outnumber lawmakers by a ratio of 5-to-1, the Star reported. More than 750 lobbyists are individuals, and 795 organizations and law firms are registered as lobbyists. Together, they spent more than $25.8 million to lobby legislators in the reporting year ended April 30.
The Indiana newspaper industry even has a registered lobbyist with the Hoosier State Press Association, which spent $1,840 lobbying lawmakers in the year.
The Star cited examples of legislators who have received thousands of dollars in gifts.